It’s been an arduous journey with plenty of basketball casualties, but we’ve finally reached the 2021 NBA Finals. With Saturday’s 118-107 Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks earned the right to play the Phoenix Suns for the NBA championship, starting on Tuesday.
The Bucks will make their first Finals appearance since 1974, with their only title coming in 1971, while the Suns last made the Finals in 1993 and have never won an NBA championship. Needless to say, one of these fan bases is going to be absolutely jubilant in a couple of weeks.
Before we move on to the Finals, however, let’s take a quick look back at an entertaining, intriguing pair of conference finals matchups and designate some winners and losers.
Probably the biggest story of the postseason, Paul will make the first NBA Finals appearance of his 16-year, Hall of Fame career after a masterful clinching game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he scored 31 of his 41 points in the second half. Paul’s legacy isn’t in doubt given his career numbers and accomplishments, but a championship would at least bump him up a couple of rungs on the all-time hierarchies.
Paul’s journey is all the more remarkable when you remember that the Houston Rockets had to give up multiple first-round picks in the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. Just as his career was supposed to be on the downslide, Paul turned in two All-NBA seasons and now has a chance to be the best player on a championship team at the age of 36.
Loser: Superstar health
The point has been belabored to death, but it bears repeating. Kawhi Leonard missed the entire conference finals. Chris Paul, Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo all missed multiple games. Devin Booker played with a broken nose for the majority of the series. It’s not a good year to be an NBA superstar. Fortunately, we still got a couple of entertaining conference finals series, but let’s hope that Giannis can get healthy and that everyone else stays in top physical form for the Finals.
Given Antetokounmpo’s offensive limitations in the halfcourt, Middleton has been the Bucks’ closer in many high-leverage games over the past few seasons. After a relatively subpar first four games of the series, Middleton put his stamp on Games 5 and 6 as Milwaukee wrapped up a Finals berth. He came up clutch when it mattered the most, scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and 23 points in the third quarter of Game 6, which created the necessary distance to close out the series.
Games 5 & 6
Middleton has been an All-Star for two of the past three seasons, and will join Team USA at the Olympics for the first time this summer. It will be great for casual fans to get to see him playing on the NBA’s biggest stage.
Winner: Monty Williams
After enduring a tumultuous NBA coaching career and suffering unspeakable tragedy with the 2016 death of his wife, Ingrid, Williams let all of his emotions come pouring out after the Suns clinched their Finals berth against the Clippers. Williams and Paul embracing on the sideline in the waning moments of Game 6 will be one of the lasting images of this postseason.
“It’s just authentic. That’s what I felt like doing. I’m not into cool. I just felt like hugging him,” said Williams, who coached Paul in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season. “I think his parents were right behind us and he was emotional. I felt for him.”
Your Paul George playoff slander no longer has a place in the NBA vernacular. George had dazzling, clutch moments even before Kawhi Leonard went down, but he went to another level in closing out the Jazz and into the conference finals against the Suns. Just as it appeared as if he was running out of gas due to being the Clippers’ main playmaker for the entire series, George let loose for a playoff career-high 41 points on 15-for-20 shooting to help his team temporarily avoid elimination on the road.
George has taken a lot of criticism over the past few seasons, both warranted and unwarranted, for his postseason play. Asked whether he feels he faces unfair scrutiny during the playoffs, George didn’t hold back.
“I do. And it’s the honest truth. It’s a fact,” George said after the Game 5 win over Phoenix. “But I can’t worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. But it is what it is.”
Loser: J.J. Watt
Newest Arizona Cardinal JJ Watt hasn’t been shy about showing his support for the Suns this postseason. He’s also been ardent in his fandom for his hometown Milwaukee Bucks. Now he’s going to have to choose, and while you could look at that situation as him being a winner, either way, we’re not that naive.
We all know whichever side he doesn’t root for is going to label him a bandwagon fan and send hate DMs his way on every social media platform available. Sigh. At least it was fun while it lasted, J.J.
Winner: Mike Budenholzer
It’s not much of a secret: Mike Budenholzer was clinging to his job like a cat on a ledge heading into the postseason. If Kevin Durant’s shoes were about two sizes smaller, Budenholzer might be seeking new employment as we speak. But he made it to the conference finals, where he coached a strong series and presumably earned some security as the Bucks’ head coach. One of his biggest moves — starting Bobby Portis in place of Giannis Antetokounmpo during Games 5 and 6 — paid dividends for the Bucks in terms of energy and rebounding, and putting Brook Lopez closer to the basket in Antetokounmpo’s absence led to a 33-point performance in Game 5. The discussions about his longevity could all be resurrected if the Bucks lose in the Finals but, for now, it appears Budenholzer has re-earned his job with the Bucks.
Loser: Lame NBA arguments
“This doesn’t count, everybody got hurt!” “Who wants to watch these small market teams?” “There’s not enough star power in the Finals!” We are not here for these terrible arguments heading into the NBA Finals. The basketball has been great, the existing stars have been phenomenal and new stars have emerged. The Bucks and Suns have fully earned their spots, so let’s not waste any more breath talking about how they’re not worthy because you think they had it “easier” than your team did. Thanks.
Winner: Trae Young
Young’s unbelievable playoff debut came to an inauspicious end due to a freak injury, but he provided one of the signature performances of this postseason with a 48-point, 11-assist, seven-rebound outburst in a 116-113 Game 1 win over the Bucks to kick off the Eastern Conference finals. He did it with typical Trae Young flair, throwing an off-the-backboard lob to John Collins, then hitting the Bucks with the “shimmy heard round the world” before swishing a wide-open 3-pointer late in the third quarter.
At just 22 years old, this likely won’t be Young’s last big playoff run. That Game 1 spectacle is what fans and analysts will look back on as the moment he arrived on the postseason stage, and it sure was fun to watch it live.
You hate to call Huerter a loser after all he did for this team during the postseason, but he had a rough conference finals. He shot just 34 percent from the field and went 10-for-38 (26 percent) from 3-point range against the Bucks after shooting 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs prior to the series. Not only did he struggle offensively, but he also became a frequent target of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who consistently bullied their way to the basket. Huerter was a huge part of the Hawks’ success this postseason, but the conference finals weren’t his brightest moment.
You can’t say much more about Jackson, who re-signed with the Clippers three weeks before the season started after not getting more lucrative offers on the free-agent market. After Leonard’s injury, Jackson was the second-best player on the Clippers during the postseason and performed consistently throughout the conference finals, averaging 20.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 46/37/80 shooting splits while playing nearly 38 minutes per game. It’s safe to say the Clippers wouldn’t have made their first-ever conference finals appearance, or won two games once they got there, without Jackson, who expressed his gratitude toward the franchise and his teammates.
“This city makes me feel at home. This organization welcoming me. My quirks, my strengths, my weaknesses. I’m not here today without this team,” Jackson said after the Clippers were eliminated by the Suns. “I’m not still playing without this team. I thank them for everything. In my heart this will forever be a special year.”
Beverley soured a phenomenal conference finals performance on both ends of the court by committing one of the most classless acts you’ll witness on an NBA court in this day and age. For reasons that are still unclear, Beverley violently shoved Chris Paul in the back with two hands late in the fourth quarter of Game 6 as the contest was getting away from the Clippers.
Earlier in the same game, the TV announcers were discussing how Beverley toes the line between aggression and recklessness, and this behavior clearly went too far. To his credit, Beverley took to Twitter to apologize to Paul the next day.
Beverley earned a one-game suspension for his first game of the 2021-22 regular season as a result of his actions.
We don’t know who will win the title, but we do know that Torrey Craig will be eligible for a ring either way. Craig played 18 games with the Bucks this season before being traded to the Suns in exchange for cash considerations. Craig wasn’t particularly productive with Milwaukee, and the acquisition of PJ Tucker was going to push him out of the rotation anyway. It was a win-win, as Craig has thrived in his role in Phoenix and become a valuable part of the team’s postseason run, hitting 44 percent of his 3-pointers in 12.6 minutes per game while playing stout defense.
Craig can refuse the ring if the Suns lose, as center Anderson Varejao did after the 2016 Finals. Varejao played in the Finals as a member of the Golden State Warriors, but had been on the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier that season and was therefore eligible for a championship ring. After famously coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors, the Cavs could have voted to give Varejao a ring, but he preemptively squashed the idea by saying he wouldn’t accept it if offered. Craig is hoping he won’t be forced to make such a decision.
When the Clippers traded Lou Williams for Rajon Rondo before the trade deadline, they were hoping that Playoff Rondo might walk through the door. Well, if he did, it was a revolving door. Rondo played a total of 47 minutes in the conference finals, only seeing the floor in three of the six games. He averaged 5.3 points and 3.7 assists, which aren’t bad numbers given the minutes he played, but he was consistently deficient trying to defend Suns guards Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cameron Payne, which contributed to keeping Rondo off the court. Last postseason, Rondo was one of the key reasons the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship. This time around, he could help his L.A. team in the same way.
Coming off an Achilles injury, Reddish was thrown right into the fire as he made his playoff debut in Game 2 of the conference finals. Despite being on a “minutes limit,” Reddish clearly established himself as an important rotation piece for the Hawks on both ends of the floor. He scored in double-figures in three of the four games in which he played, including 21 points and a career-high-tying six 3-pointers in Game 6. He also showed his defensive prowess by taking turns on Middleton and Holiday when Atlanta was having trouble slowing them down.
Reddish is just 21 years old and has shown tremendous potential as a two-way wing. He also holds an interesting place in NBA history, as he was the player the Hawks drafted with the pick they received from the Dallas Mavericks in the Luka Doncic-Trae Young swap. Hawks coach Nate McMillan said he “sees a lot of Paul George” in Reddish, and if he gets anywhere close to that in the next few years, given the level that Young has already reached, then Atlanta might be able to say they won that trade — something that seemed inconceivable just a few months ago.